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Mendocino County & The Great Flu of 1918

For fascinating reading or listening there is “The Great Influenza” by John Barry. It’s available from the County Library and provides hours of informative material on a disease that killed millions world-wide in 1918-1919. The book set me to wondering how the Mendocino Coast persevered through the national epidemic back then. I went to the archive of the Kelley House Museum and read almost century-old Mendocino Beacons for a local perspective on the epidemic. The newspaper archives of the county’s historical society’s Held-Poage Library on Perkins Street in Ukiah has reports on how the rest of the county fared.

Called Spanish Influenza, the disease started in Camp Funston, the 14th National Army Cantonment in Kansas. A viral variation of the illness developed and spread through soldiers, and as those men were transferred, they took the disease with them.

October 19, 1918 was the first mention of the great epidemic in Mendocino County. In a story called “Flu was busy in the County Seat - Spanish Influenza has Ukiah in its grippe.” The Grammar School and the High School were closed, and public gatherings were prohibited. No dances, motion picture shows, lodge meetings or religious gatherings were allowed.

Uncle Sam’s advice suggested guarding against droplet infection. “It’s as dangerous as poison gas shells!” a reference to the introduction of poison gas in the First World War then being fought in Europe and Asia Minor. “No one but a nurse should help the sick and it is foolish to ask a druggist to prescribe patent medicines as they are reported useless,” it was reported.

The Beacon warned, “Cover up each cough and sneeze; if you don’t you will spread the disease.” Masks were to be worn in the business section of town. By the end of October, Fort Bragg had 175 cases and the Apple Fair in Mendocino was cancelled. Families were being notified if their military sons were sick with the flu. Dr. Preston’s mansion, where the Mendocino Art Center is now, was turned into a private hospital with 20 beds.

Young and healthy folks in the prime of life were often the first to fall sick. Tie makers, donkey bosses and choppers in the logging camps, undertakers in town and especially doctors and nurses, died. The wife of the owner of the Cecil Hotel in Ukiah was a graduate nurse and did everything she could to save her husband, but he died at age 30. The malady secured a foothold in the State Asylum at Talmage where 85 persons fell ill. All saloons and poolhalls were shuttered, and stores closed from noon to 2 p.m. daily on the coast so employees could go out and catch some fresh air.

Fort Bragg had five people die in one November week. There were 35 cases reported in Albion and doctors were being called to Point Arena. The Albertinium Orphanage in Ukiah said 50 boys and three nuns were in bed sick. Turnout in the November election was low. Caspar Lumber Company stopped operating their night shift because so many men were ill. At Fort Bragg, undertaker Constantine “Lemos” Silveria, a nephew of the Lemos brothers of Mendocino, died at age 38 with his wife and four children sick. Schools in Mendocino stayed closed for seven weeks.

In Comptche John Peterson was reported busy motoring patients to the doctor in Mendocino. So many men in the logging camps outside Caspar and Greenwood were ill work was at a standstill. 

By December 1918 things were improving. Services were allowed in churches for Thanksgiving. Most every issue of the Beacon listed Influenza Death Notes. One week listed a merchant, a child, a lumber company employee and a housewife as taken by the flu. But by years end it was reported, “Influenza is Pretty Well Stamped Out Here.”

People whose immune systems were weakened after the flu were now contracting tuberculosis and pneumonia. The camp boss at Wages Creek died caring for his sick workers. But by mid-February 1919 Greenwood residents declared the epidemic was over and staged a Grand Ball. “Don’t diagnose your own condition. Become a fresh air crank and Enjoy Life!” the newspaper advised. But it was July 1919 before the Beacon did NOT notice a death due to influenza.

(This article was first published in May 2015.)

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